A Superior Present Is Built on the Past

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The theme of the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) recent national convention in Denver was “Building Leaders: Leadership for Architecture, Leadership Beyond Architecture.” I’m not sure how the name came about, but my guess is the recession gave architects an inferiority complex.

As construction finally emerges from a recessionary storm, architects want to regain their place in the sun. Architects at the convention articulated their “commitment to spark a national discussion about the value of architecture,” in the AIA’s own language, “and the important role architects play as visionary leaders who make the world a better place.”

I caught up with several architectural luminaries at the convention and asked them what the theme meant to them. Here is what I heard.

Jonathan Spodek, AIA, associate professor of architecture at Ball State University and 2013 chairman of the AIA’s Historic Resources Committee, which held sessions at the convention that included a workshop titled “Energy Retrofits for Existing Buildings: Expanding the Role of Architects Through Opportunity and Expertise,” talked about the “relevance of preservation architects who have solutions for many of the built environment’s problems today.” Spodek stressed that ever-changing and complex energy codes will drive the market. “Preservation architects can expand their role,” he said, “by convincing building owners to save precious resources with deep energy retrofits.”

The eminent Carl Elefante, FAIA, of Quinn Evans Architects, who is also an AIA board member, told me that “architects touch so many of today’s important issues, from sustainability to community revitalization. We need to be better recognized for the solutions we provide, especially when it comes to the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. There are many more existing buildings which need upgrades than there are new buildings being built.”

Peyton Hall, FAIA, of Historic Resources Group, LLC, and an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Southern California, thinks the next generation of architects is key. “My students get it,” he explains. “They get that historic preservation and sustainability are synonymous. Preservation values are becoming more mainstream because preservation is sustainable and sustainability is standard practice now.”

When I was not covering events sponsored by the Historic Resources Committee, I walked the exposition floor. It had a nice buzz. Conference managers told me the attendance in Denver was equal to last year’s in Washington, D.C. If true (organizers can be notoriously upbeat about those numbers!), that’s a very good sign because there are many more architects within driving distance of Washington, D.C., than Denver. The mood was upbeat, even if some exhibitors complained about spotty foot traffic. The industry wants to feel better about itself, after feeling so bad for so long.

I came upon a pleasant surprise at the Andersen Windows’ exhibit. Public relations executive Stacy Einck handed me a collection of “Home Style Pattern Books” that feature popular historic house styles from Tudor to Prairie. In the introduction to one of the books, Einck writes, “Today, there is a renewed interest in pattern books as planners and developers look to build new communities based on the successes of the past. Andersen is committed to making this type of great design more attainable through our products, tools and services.”

This is just another example of how historic architecture meets the profession’s mainstream. When large manufacturers of building materials, along with kids in school, “get it” about historic preservation, what you and I do for a living looks more viable and even more relevant in the future.

So no more inferiority complex, please!